Retiring a number in a sports club has been a long established practice in major North American sports. It was only in the 1990s when football clubs started adopting the practice. It was because of the custom for players in the starting lineup to be issued numbers 1 to 11 by formation on a match-by-match basis.
The honour of retiring a number is for a club to pay tribute to a player who had a great impact on the team. Usually, retired numbers are those of players who left the team, retired or sadly passed away.
It’s a great honour, of course. However, the stories of why the club chose to retire a player’s number can evoke such nostalgic and even dismal feelings. Today, we look back with fondness on retired numbers from football clubs in the English Premier League. Learn more about their stories below.
Manchester City #23
Player: Marc-Vivien Foé
It was a complete shock for the football community across the world when Marc-Vivien Foé suddenly died during an international competitive match.
Foé originally played in one of the biggest clubs in Cameroon before European clubs took interest of him. He played for five seasons at Lens, bagging the 1998 French league title. Later on, he moved to play in the EPL under West Ham United until he was loaned to Manchester City in the 2002–03 season.
No one would’ve guessed that Foé’s life would be cut short when he played for Cameroon in the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup. It was in the 72nd minute of the match when Foé suddenly collapsed and shortly after, died. It was revealed that his death was related to a heart problem.
Player: Gianfranco Zola
When Gianfranco Zola left the football club, no other player has donned the number 25 of Chelsea. It has been well over 13 years since his number was worn. However, Chelsea has yet to officially retire the number.
Zola was an Italian football player who started his career in his country with whom he was able to lift a lot of trophies such as the Serie A title, the Italian Super Cup, and the UEFA Cup. It was not long after his move to the Premier League where he was lauded as the Football Writers’ Player of the Year in the 1996–97 season.
He is also renowned as the greatest player of Chelsea after he bagged the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, the UEFA Super Cup, two FA Cups, the League Cup, and the Community Shield. It’s understandable that no Chelsea player has thought of taking his number. However, John Terry reportedly got the number 26 shirt so he could sit next to the Italian.
West Ham United #6
Player: Bobby Moore
There is no doubt of the legacy that Bobby Moore left behind which prompted West Ham to officially retire his number 15 years after his death.
Moore served The Hammers for 16 years in which he was the club captain for more than 10 years. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest defenders in football history as well as West Ham’s greatest player ever.
In his 16-year tenure with the club, he won the FA Cup in 1963–64 and the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1964–65. As a football player, he collected awards such as the FWA Footballer of the Year in 1964 and the West Ham Player Of The Year in 1961, 1963, 1968 and 1970.
Life outside his football career was difficult, however, with Moore continuously battling with cancer. On February 1993, he publicly announced he has bowel and liver cancer. Ten days later, on 24 February, Moore died at the age of 51.
Because of his legacy as a football player, honours flooded in to pay tribute to Moore. He was the first footballer to be honoured with an English Heritage Blue Plaque outside his home.
West Ham United #38
Player: Dylan Tombides
Another retired number from West Ham United belonged to a young Australian football player named Dylan Tombides. At the young age of 20, Tombides’ life was cut short by testicular cancer despite his bold battle with the disease which many referred to as a feat that defied medical logic.
Tombides was born in Perth but grew up in Macau where he played in nearby Hong Kong with the Brazilian Soccer School in Yau Ma Tei. At the age of 15, he joined West Ham where he was an unused substitute in the Premier League in the 2011 season.
He made his first professional appearance for West Ham on September 2012, coming on as an 84th-minute substitute for Gary O’Neil. It was also the last game he ever played for the team. Later on, Tombides played for the Australian under-23 team. Australian fans and media raved on about him being a successor to Harry Kewell.
Despite his battle with cancer, Tombides made an effort in continuing his football career. He even played at the Asian under-22 championship in January 2014 after intensive chemotherapy. However, he passed away on April 18, 2014. The next day, his father and brother, laid a shirt on the centre spot where Tombides’ squad number 38 and his name was.
Swansea City #40
Player: Besian Idrizaj
Another unprecedented football player who passed away suddenly was Besian Idrizaj. He was an Austrian professional footballer who served as the striker of Swansea City.
Idrizaj started his football career with Austria Linz and LASK Linz until he was later on signed to Liverpool FC in the summer of 2005. He made his debut appearance in a pre-season friendly match against Wrexham on July 2006 where he played for the first 45 minutes upfront as a striker.
On August 2009, Swansea City recruited Idrizaj, playing three games for them. Barely two weeks after the end of the Championship campaign, Idrizaj died from a heart attack. As a mark of respect, Swansea players wore shirts with his photo and name. The club then decided to retire his number.